By Michael Barkman and Brianne Goertzen
On April 11, the Progressive Conservative government led by Brian Pallister released its second budget under their mandate. While the government is calling it moderate, post-secondary students are calling it an attack on accessible, affordable and high quality public post-secondary education. With student debt closing in on $20,000, the ability for students to pay down their debt just got harder with the release of the 2017 Manitoba budget. Let’s talk about why.
The budget cut the Tuition Fee Income Tax Rebate and Rebate Advance by 2018. The Tuition Rebate was introduced by the previous NDP government as an incentive to graduating students to remain in Manitoba to work. The rebate would provide a graduating student with a 60% rebate on all eligible tuition fees once you begin working and paying taxes, up to a maximum benefit of $25,000. The Tuition Income Tax Rebate Advance would permit students to claim 5% tax credit advance while still in school. The annual cap was $500 with a maximum cap of $5000. However, any amount claimed would reduce the amount one would receive following graduation under the Tuition Fee Income Tax Rebate. The elimination of this credit eliminates $54 million in spending annually.
The PC government claims that they were more concerned with assisting students access an education upfront. Students have been calling for comprehensive, holistic policies that assist a student in accessing an education upfront for many years, namely converting student loans into student grants. However, the PC investment in upfront supports is in name only, and does not actually represent a meaningful investment in students. The elimination of the Tuition Rebate without any new assistance for students or recent graduates represents a regressive measure for eliminating student debt in Manitoba.
The PC government has repeatedly pointed to their minor investment into the Manitoba Scholarship Bursary Initiative (MSBI). The MSBI was introduced in the 1990s under then Premier Gary Filmon, with the province directly matching private dollars raised by institutions. The province contributed a maximum of $4.5 million, to a total amount of $9 million. The current PC government has changed that funding formula, now with a third of the funding coming from the province, and two thirds from private donations. The province will now be investing a maximum of $6.75 million, with the remaining $13.5 million dependant on post-secondary institutions to fundraise. Therefore, the PC government is really only increasing funding by $1.875 million this year, a drop in the bucket particularly in comparison with the elimination of $54 million in spending on recent graduates.
Additionally, the MSBI is currently available to students in financial need, as well as for academic merit. That means the already miniscule total government spending of $6.75 million in spending could go to students who are doing well in school, but not in need of upfront financial assistance to access post-secondary. The MSBI is not a inclusive, holistic way to approach access to post-secondary education and should not be used as a way to excuse the elimination of $54 million in funding for Manitoba’s students and recent graduates.
To add to the attack on students, the budget also dealt a hit to the operational funding for post-secondary institutions. Funding for post-secondary institutions was stagnant, with levels remaining relatively the same as last year’s budget. However, when taking inflation into account, this funding does not even keep pace with the cost of running our institutions as they are. In previous years, post-secondary institutions received base operational funding plus 2.5%, so this funding level is a cut to operational funding for education.
Some members of the government have maintained that the pursuit of post-secondary education is an individual responsibility. Even the MLA for Riding Mountain, Greg Nesbitt, recently said that he was comfortable with “allowing a university, which for all intents and purposes, is a business, to charge more for their product” (Hansard: vol. LXX No.35A 10am Thursday, April 6, 2017). The reality is that post-secondary institutions are public spaces where people go to better themselves and contribute to the overall health of the province. Education is a great equalizer, but by downloading costs and debt onto individuals is greatly missing the mark and ignores the fact that education is a public good for all Manitobans. A more educated society results in less dependence on the social welfare system, reduces incarceration rates, and further contributes to the overall economic health of the province. Further, the pursuit of post-secondary education, whether through a college or university program is no longer a choice but a necessity, with over 70% of new jobs requiring post-secondary credentials.
With a cut to the Tuition Rebate and Rebate Advance program, making recent graduates suffer in paying down their student debt, a lack of any bold ideas for truly creating more upfront access to education, and cutting core funding to our institutions, this government has turned their back on students, and the future generation of this province.